Album Review: Oxbow – Thin Black Duke

Thin Black Duke
(Hydra Head Records)

Somewhere down the line, the word innovative must have been used to describe the kind of legacy that Oxbow has carved out for them, the term fearless deserves inclusion in that description too. Oxbow, are two things: an uncompromising live experience and an unpredictably eccentric unit when studio tape begins to roll. It’s hard to believe that ten years have already passed since [Oxbow’s last studio album] The Narcotic Story surfaced and within that silence, their long time propaganda distribution vessel, Hydra Head Industries announced they were ceasing putting out new releases [announced in Fall 2012]. For both these forward-thinking platforms, old habits die hard as both returns in partnership for the release of Oxbow’s newest studio album Thin Black Duke. Having always been a group that is seemingly “comfortable with making themselves uncomfortable”, the Bay Area experimental rock quartet continue on with that approach which began with the Fuckfest release back in 1989 and has been further pushing out their artistic thresholds since. The results that Eugene Robinson [vocals/lyrics], Niko Wenner [guitars/compositions], Dan Adams [bass] and Greg Davis [drums] churn out amongst the eight tracks of Thin Black Duke are best described as bold, hostile and dissonant on the music arrangement and lyrical end. It also gives the impression that two distinct performances are occurring simultaneously throughout the record in part to the way the instrumentation and vocal deliveries interact with each other in part of Eugene’s lyrics and vocal deliveries being construed into a narrative that is sung out of synch of the compositions. It’s something that you would normally hear coming from either a Tom Waits or Lydia Lunch record, not a group that’s been labeled a “noise rock” band (however the Lydia Lunch reference may make this an argument). Then again, that’s why these guys carry a brass pair between their thighs, they’re daring and really don’t give a fuck on what a formula is for a specific group, they were not created to follow anyone.

If you’re expecting this record to get gnarly quickly, patience young Padawan or put the Cherubs record back on. The opening half begins with a dominant presence of brass orchestration and free jazz compositions alongside their heavy rock parts. To go on a fanboy moment, “Cold & Well Lit Place” place has a delivery that gets you stoked and amped knowing these guys are active again and exhibits why these four are incredible musicians to boot (that can be said in respect to the whole record as well). This record also shows how they are able to break from one style to the next with the following track “Ecce Homo” written with an “avant-garde” (tried not to use that word) orchestral feel but going forward, that’s when the record’s presence begins to intensify. “A Gentleman’s Gentleman” has the band pick up the pace, sonically speaking, while Eugene’s vocal delivery has him sounding like a schizophrenic-off-his-pills for the first half of the track before the band carries into an intense piano piece of the song with Eugene giving an intimidating delivery of lyrics throughout. “Host” would have to be one of the more powerful and dynamic sounding cuts on Thin Black Duke in part to the frantic drumming patterns over the instrumentation, especially noting the vocal deliveries alongside the accompanying piano chords at the song’s conclusion.

Thin Black Duke is a warm homecoming for both Oxbow and Hydra Head in respect to the impact they have left on heavy music or just music for that matter.

Purchase the album here.

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